The Running Explosion

July 1, 2015

Our guest blogger, Ray Charbonneau, is a regular contributor to Marathon & Beyond magazine. In our current issue (July/August 2015), you can read his latest article, “Something to Run For: A Not-so-Short Story.”  

In a world where running a Boston qualifier doesn’t ensure that you’ll get in the race, sometimes it seems like everyone is a runner. We may be closer than you think to the day when that’s a reality.

When we look back on the history of running in the US, we like to talk about ‘running booms.’ The period in the 70’s when Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon, road races began accepting women, and Jim Fixx had a bestseller is usually called the ‘First Running Boom.’ Then, in the 90’s, when everyone and their Oprah discovered that even penguins could run the marathon, there was the ‘Second Running Boom.’ And somewhere in the mid-2000’s, when ultramarathoning took off and the women entering races outnumbered the men for the first time, the ‘Third Running Boom’ started – a boom that appears to continue to this day.

But that’s a paexplosion1rochial view of the history of running. If we take a broader look, one that recognizes the long and storied history embodied by the idea of ‘the loneliness of the long-distance runner,’ those ‘booms’ are just noise in the data. What’s actually going on is no mere boom. It’s more like an explosion, a nuclear chain-reaction in the process of going critical.

Let’s look at that data.

This first chart shows the change in the number of race finishers over time, both overall and at a variety of distances, using data from and Ultrarunning Magazine. You can see that there are no real ‘boom’ or ‘bust’ cycles. With only one exception, the curves are always going up. And that one exception, a single-year dip in marathon finishers, was not caused by any loss of interest, but when Hurricane Sandy forced New York to be cancelled, wiping out 40,000+ potential finishers.

I included a line in the chart for the US population over the same period. The population is rising, but it’s obvious that the increase in race finishers is not due solely to an increase in the overall number of people.

Now picture the long, relatively flat part to left of the curves shown here, the part that represents running prior to the 70’s, a time when there were so few organized races that a single publication, pasted together manually by a single person, could track all the results. And take note of the significant increase in the rate of increase in the 2000’s, especially at the shorter distances.

explosion2When you take the entire history of running into account, it’s apparent that the overall trend of participation in running events closely resembles an exponential growth curve.

It’s not a little boom, or a series of booms (and busts). It’s a running explosion!

What does this explosion mean for running in the coming years? Let’s look at that population curve and at the curve for the total number of event finishers in more detail.

I generated best-fit trendlines for those curves, which you can see on the first chart. They confirm that the US population is increasing steadily, in a relatively linear fashion, while an exponential formula is the best fit for the finishers’ trendline. Both formulas fit the data extremely well, as shown by the fact that the correlation coefficient (R2) is very close to 1.

Now let’s extend the current trends forward into the future. Here’s a final chart:

If things go on as they have been, by 2080 there will be a race finish for every man, woman, and child in the US. It’s science!









Ray Charbonneau is the author of a number of books on running. That number is currently four. Ray’s work has appeared previously in Marathon & Beyond and many other publications. His current project is the “Runner’s Book Bundle,” a specially-priced collection of 15 indie-publishing ebooks by runners for runners. All proceeds from sales of the “Runner’s Book Bundle” go to the Vermont Foodbank and the 100 Mile Club. Find out more at

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